By Dean Wong
Two Ballard men are keeping the tradition of piston-powered hydroplanes alive through the Miss Thriftway boat which they built from scratch, a boat this is just for show, not for racing.
Steve Payne and Stuart Jones both graduated from Ballard High school in 1966. They grew up during a period when many hydroplanes were built in Ballard, a neighborhood with a long history in the hydroplane world.
In the old days, the Bardahl, Excide, Seattle Two and Thriftway based in local shops.
Now the unlimited hydroplane circuit's top boat, the U-1 Ellstrom Elam Plus is built and raced by Ellstrom Manufacturing. The U-37 Beacon Plumbing is also based in Ballard.
"It's the history of World War II, Ballard and Seattle. It can't get anymore Ballard," said Jones.
Together, the two men volunteer their time with Vashon Unlimiteds, owners of the Miss Thriftway, which they helped build brand new from the ground up.
The engines for the old style hydroplanes are from World War II fighter planes.
Vashon Unlimited lucked out when they found some engines that used to power a P-38 Lightning fighter plane to install in the Miss Thriftway.
The boat's name has along history in itself. It was named after the grocery store chain. Its number U-60 corresponds to how many stores were in Washington state.
Original Miss Thriftways from 1955 and 1958 were both destroyed in racing accidents. These early versions of unlimited hydros were known for being unstable on the water, unlike the modern, safety oriented modern boats. A third Miss Thriftway has been restored.
In the old days of racing, the boats could reach a top speed of 190 miles an hour on the straight aways. Many drivers were killed or hurt when hydroplanes flipped over.
"They ran them real hard. These boats went so fast, they were killers. In 1966, four died. In 1967, one died," said Payne.
In building a new Miss Thriftway, Vashon Unlimited made it 1,000 pounds heavier for more durability. A crew of six put in up to 20,000 hours and $160,000 into the boat.
The 1,700 cubic inch Allison V-1710 engine can produce 2,000 horsepower.
In an age of the "green" movement to improve the environment, these old hydroplanes are the opposite.
"We are not 'green,' we burn a lot of fuel, four gallons per lap," said Payne.
The hull of the boat is made of spruce, white oak and a mahogany plywood. The Miss Thriftway followed a tradition design by Ted Jones and his name is painted on the hull.
Driving a hydroplane is an experience only fully appreciated when on the water.
On dry land, Jones has driven a car 200 miles an hour. His top speed is 125 in the Miss Thriftway. He said 125 miles an hour in a boat feels faster than 200 in a car.
"I never imagined I would drive a real hydro. It has been incredible. Its mind boggling and way different from what it looks like from shore," said Jones.
"It's hard. You have so much adrenaline. There is a lot of bouncing and force on the body, especially in the turns," said Jones.
The crew keeps the boat speed low to avoid accidents and to protect the engines.
"We want the engines to run for years and years," said Jones.
During their practice runs the Miss Thriftway team was testing different propellers. They were joined by other hydroplanes lined up for test runs on Lake Washington. They included some powered by automobile engines.
It's a costly event. Organizers had to rent Stan Sayres park, hire an ambulance, chase boat, police boat and a crane to lift the boats in and out of the water.
During the unlimited racing season, the old piston boats put on demonstration runs.
"We don't race. We put on demos with four boats all choreographed. It's still a good show," said Payne.
Crowds are attracted to the vintage hydroplanes and their loud engines with their heavy rumbling sound, compared to the turbine engines "whining."
"Fans love the old boats. That is missing with the turbines, the drone of the World War II fighters," said Payne.